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“We Can’t Go It Alone”: Jackson, Miss., Mayor Lumumba on Water Catastrophe in Majority-Black City

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We get an update on the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, from Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, where more than 180,000 residents of the majority-Black city are without running water. President Biden declared a federal emergency on Tuesday. Water has been cut off since the main water treatment plant flooded amid torrential rains. Lumumba says the emergency is the result of three decades of disinvestment from the state. “We’ve been investing the money that we have,” says Lumumba, who took office in 2017 and started alerting the state government of the challenges with the water system starting in 2018. “We can’t do it alone. We don’t have a billion dollars’ worth of resources to make it happen.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Jackson, Mississippi, an overwhelmingly Black city, with more than 180,000 area residents who are facing their third day without running water. Officials say the crisis could last indefinitely. On Tuesday, people waited in long lines for bottled drinking water, to fill up at tanker trucks full for water to flush toilets and more.

MONICA LASHAY BASS: When you don’t have no water, you know, especially when you’ve got newborn babies.

DANYELLE HOLMES: We are seeing the intentional divestment in communities that are led by Black elected officials. … This has been an issue for me since I came down here to Tougaloo College in 1991. I was always told not to drink that water. When I came here to Jackson, it was smelling like chlorine.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday night, President Biden authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, to coordinate disaster relief efforts, quote, “to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in Hinds County.” This came after Mississippi’s governor declared a state of emergency for Jackson and the neighboring areas. For the past month, Jackson residents already had a boil-water advisory due to problems with the city’s main water treatment plant. When recent torrential rains caused the Pearl River to overtop its banks, the plant flooded and shut down, cutting off water supplies. Schools have shifted to online classes. Many businesses are closed amidst the ongoing water crisis.

For more, we go to Jackson to speak with the mayor.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, welcome back to Democracy Now! You’re are in the midst of a massive crisis, the imminent cause, the climate crisis, causing the flooding that has shut down the sewage treatment plant. But the issue of water in Jackson has been going on for a long time. You have been warning about it. Can you talk about what’s happening on the ground right now and what you think is the real longtime cause of this?

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: Well, thank you, Amy, for having me again. And happy to be able to lift up this circumstance on your show.

This has been something we’ve been crying out for more than two years, saying that it’s not a matter of if our systems will fail, but a matter of when our systems will fail. I have described Jackson as the poster child of the infrastructure challenges that we see in this country. And so, this is something that when the state joined me and shared that they would be bringing in resources, bringing in a team to support us, we welcomed that with open arms, because we’ve been saying that we needed the support, we’ve been saying that we need resources. And so, this is a matter of human rights. This is a matter of deferred maintenance that has happened over decades, a lack of investment in capital improvements, and, quite possibly — quite honestly, probably more than a billion dollars’ worth of challenges that have to go into our water distribution system.

And so, we were sustaining some level of improvement yesterday. But the system, true to its form and true to what we have seen, had a bit of regression last night. So we’re struggling to get tanks back up, struggling to be able to restore water pressure across the city. And so, we believe that our residents are worthy of a system which is sustainable, are worthy of a system which is equitable, serving all of the residents and not having a disproportionate effect on the poorest communities in South Jackson.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mayor, I wanted to ask you about the responsibility of the state government in this issue, the state Legislature. Mississippi has long been the nation’s poorest state. It’s also the state with the highest percentage of African American residents. Could you talk about how the state has responded in the past to your requests, and also the issue of the state Constitution not allowing municipalities to tax themselves, have independent taxing authority, and how that affects your ability to remedy the water infrastructure problems?

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: Yes. It is clear that we’re heavily reliant on the state for many of these resources, not only because we don’t have the independent ability to tax ourselves, but because even the federal funding that is sent to or intended for cities like Jackson, the conduit that it comes through is actually the state of Mississippi. And so, it’s no secret that I have been consistent in lifting up that all parties that have ability, that have license or authority to help with this problem, need to lean in and be a part of the process of its correction.

But today, you know, I have to focus on the priority of the coalition that is being built now, and have to be optimistic in that coalition. And so, you know, I think that there is a time to discuss why we haven’t seen this coalition formed sooner, to discuss just how far we’re going to go, but I will say that I am at least delighted to see that there is discussion about moving together at this point. I don’t believe that we should have taken this time to get here, but I am going to move forward in a spirit of operational unity, focusing more on our common ends and objectives than our differences at this time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what are your hopes for what the federal government might possibly do to assist the residents of Jackson in this crisis?

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: Well, I hope that they bring the full arm of their authority, understanding that this is a crisis, this is an emergency, that the events that sparked the pressure being reduced on this occasion were directly associated with the flood that we recently experienced.

But, you know, it’s well documented even amongst our federal agencies and leadership, all the way up to the White House, that this is a persistent problem. You know, I’ve had the opportunity to walk with Administrator Regan here in Jackson, looking at the multitude of challenges we have with respect to our infrastructure. On the occasion of his visit, we had low water pressure challenges in South Jackson. We were visiting a school in South Jackson, and the children had to relocate. I’ve been with him in D.C. and heard him give his stump speech about the direction of the EPA, and I’ve heard him include the city of Jackson in that speech.

And so, we’re looking for every available dollar, every available partner, and we’re working with a coalition of the willing in order to restore dignity to our residents. This is part and parcel of a cycle of humiliation that far too often our communities have to suffer from because we aren’t given the sustainable development resources for the quality of life that they deserve.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to —


AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I just wanted to ask one other thing to the mayor: What about President Biden’s infrastructure legislation that was passed? Has any of that money been earmarked for Jackson and for its infrastructure needs?

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: That money has not yet landed in Jackson. And, you know, what I can share is my discussions with the czar, Mitch Landrieu, along with my discussions with Administrator Regan, were both consistent in that they had money intended or they had Jackson in mind with the allocation that they expected to go to our state. And so, we just have to make certain that it goes from its inception point all the way to the final destination, which is right to our water treatment facilities, which is towards creating a sustainable and equitable system for our residents.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Lumumba, you’ve attributed the water plant breakdown to the recent flooding of the Pearl River. But Republican Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves has said years of poor maintenance wore down the facility’s pumps. This is him on Monday.

GOV. TATE REEVES: At the end of last week, I was briefed by the state Health Department on the discovery that Jackson’s main water treatment facility has been operating with zero redundancies. The main pumps had recently been damaged severely, about the same time as the prolonged boil-water notice began, and the facility was now operating on smaller backup pumps. The city government was unable to give them a timeline for when the facility would be back in proper operating condition.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Republican Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves. You declared an emergency in Jackson on Monday. He followed on Tuesday. Before we let you go to deal with this catastrophe in the city, what do you see as the long-term plan?

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: Yes. Well, first and foremost, I just want to be clear that we’ve been lifting up these challenges since about 2018. I came into office in 2017. And so, we’ve been going to state leadership to speak to these challenges ever since that point in time. This has been a combination of accumulated challenges over the course of time, more than three decades’ worth of challenges. And so, I liken it to a vehicle. If you’re changing the oil regularly, if you’re rotating the tires, if you’re giving it its tune-up, then it’s likely to function better. But when that has not taken place over the course of such a significant period of time as what has happened in Jackson, then you end up with larger, more substantial threats to your vehicle and to this system. And so, we’ve been crying out to the state for the support. There has been inequity in what we’ve seen in Jackson versus other communities. And so we’ve been lifting that up.

But at this time, what our focus is, is a focus on a coalition that works together, a coalition that is arm in arm, making sure that we work towards the residents of Jackson and making certain that we can conclude these challenges. We need an overhaul of our water treatment facility. In all actuality, a new water treatment facility would be in order, because the water treatment facility we have has never functioned optimally and has had challenges from the moment that it was created. And so I think it is imperative that we work towards automizing — or, automating, I’m sorry — automating portions of the plant, the feed systems, a weatherizing of the plant. Not only do we have the challenges stemming from the flood on this event, two Februarys ago, the freezing temperatures of a February storm led to the debilitation of the plant at that time. We’ve seen this time and time again. We have hotter summers, colder winters and more precipitation annually. And so this is all taking a toll on our infrastructure.

And so, on the short term, we’re looking towards the state’s resources in human capital and physical capital improvements to the plant. And long term, we’re looking towards the combination of state and federal funds to make overall adjustments in the plant. We’ve been investing the money that we’ve had. We’ve invested $8 million towards a larger pipe just to service the South Jackson community. We’ve invested in a structure over our membrane side and the weatherization process to make certain that we aren’t crippled like we were in February. We’ve invested in so many improvements in our water treatment plant. But we can’t go it alone. We don’t have a billion dollars’ worth of resources to make this happen.

Fortunately, we have the partnership and the collaboration of agencies like the U.S. Water Alliance and Kellogg that are working in conjunction with the city of Jackson so that we can put forth and prioritize that which has already been outlined by our order of consent with the EPA, that identifies numerous challenges within our plant. We know what the challenges are, and that order outlines it. We need the resources to actually fix those challenges at this time.

AMY GOODMAN: Chokwe Antar Lumumba, mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, we thank you for being with us.

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